New sources reveal the perilous journeys of fugitive slaves.
Prolific historian Foner (History/Columbia Univ.; The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, 2010, etc.), winner of the Pulitzer, Bancroft and Lincoln prizes, traces the convoluted trail known as the Underground Railroad in the roiling decades before the Civil War. Drawing on rich archival sources, including the papers of Sydney Howard Gay, a prominent New York abolitionist who scrupulously documented his cases, Foner uncovers the tireless, dangerous work of a handful of determined abolitionists and the quests of thousands of black men, women and children to achieve freedom. Slaves risked their lives to escape primarily due to physical violence, fear of being sold or broken promises of manumission. Many headed to Philadelphia, where Quakers and freed blacks hid them, gave them money and sent them on their way North. In Canada, Foner writes, they found “greater safety and more civil and political rights—including serving on juries, testifying in court, and voting—than what existed in most of the United States.” Although a “pervasive antislavery atmosphere” prevailed in Syracuse, the atmosphere in New York City was far different. In the 18th century, slave auctions regularly had taken place at a Wall Street market, and ownership of slaves by New Yorkers was common. Even by the mid-19th century, New York was called “ ‘a poor neglected city’ when it came to abolitionism”; pro-Southern businessmen eagerly upheld fugitive slave laws, cooperating with slave owners intent on retrieving their human property. “You don’t know, you can’t…,” wrote Gay to a Boston abolitionist, “just what my position is….You are surrounded by a people growing in anti-slavery; I by a people who hate it.”
Foner brings to life fraught decades of contention, brutality and amazing acts of moral courage.